Word Wars

Directed by Eric Chaikin & Julian Petrillo. Word Wars is a documentary about the competitive world of the popular word board game Scrabble. Running time 1 hour 20 minutes.

First a bit of history: Scrabble is a word game invented by Alfred Mosher Butts in 1933 originally called LEXIKO due to it being a cross between a game of anagrams and crossword puzzles. He kept redesigning his idea to become CRISS CROSS WORDS. No game companies were interested in the game. Then, Butts met James Brunot, entrepreneur, who helped him develop his idea into a commercially viable game as well as change the name to SCRABBLE. They trademarked the name in 1948 and began manufacturing the game board and small wooden letter tiles in an old schoolhouse. It was slow going for a number of years but then sometime in the 1950s, the president of Macy’s department store bought the game and loved it so much, he decided to sell it in his store.

As popularity grew, game companies took notice and began manufacturing and distributing the game. Eventually, Scrabble became part of the Hasbro family in 1989. According to the Scrabble website, 3 out of 5 homes have at least one version of the Scrabble games. The North American SCRABBLE Players Association hosts a SCRABBLE competition every year in a different city across the United States. About 500 players compete over a 5 day period playing 31 games. Cities across America have their own tournaments and SCRABBLE clubs where people get together to play SCRABBLE for fun or small wagers with the newest SCRABBLE craze being the digital version SCRABBLE GO you can play on your phone or tablet. (Scrabble.habsro.com, 2020) And now for the film…

Synopsis

Word Wars follows four SCRABBLE players on their quest to become the winner of the North American SCRABBLE Championship for 2002. The prize for winning is $25,000 and bragging rights. Championship competitors usually attend and compete in tournaments throughout the year in preparation and standings for the championship. Each player has 25 minutes to play all their moves.

Joe Edley is the current champion everyone wants to beat. He’s married with one daughter, has a job, and his SCRABBLE philosophy is about channeling positive energy to get the best tiles and be open to the best words while using a strong board strategy. He practices TAI CHI, meditates, and overall expresses a zen type attitude on camera. This comes off a bit arrogant to the other SCRABBLE players which makes them want to beat him even more.

Matt Graham is a strong competitor who doesn’t have a job and instead focuses on studying words, playing pick up SCRABBLE games in the park or against friends for money, and taking brain power boosting vitamins and supplements. He collects word books, SCRABBLE dictionaries, and word play reference materials. He’s intense and often angers his SCRABBLE friends by playing phony words hoping they don’t challenge the word.

Marlon Hill is a strong competitor who doesn’t work and instead focuses on studying words and expressing the problems with the English language to whomever will listen. He has strong opinions about the history of language and how complex and confusing it can be. He spends a lot of time with Matt but does not consider them friends. He smokes a little pot to keep his mind clear for gaming and also visits the near by elementary school to teach them about SCRABBLE and how it can help them learn words, spelling, and math (since you have to add the points carefully and quickly depending on how you place the tiles as you can make multiple words.)

Joel Sherman aka G I Joel (due to his gastro-intestinal problems) does not have a job and frequently states he has spent so much time perfecting his SCRABBLE skills, he has no skills worth hiring him for any job. He spends his time drinking antacids, playing SCRABBLE against Matt for HOURS for money, and running his local SCRABBLE club meetings. He always looks like he’s been up for days, stressed with bags under his eyes, and like he could go crazy at any moment. Or pass out.

The filmmakers also visit the SCRABBLE hangout at Washington Park where people meet everyday to play pick up games for fun or small wagers. It’s a bit loud as people talk and argue and generally compete strongly for bragging rights. There are male and female players and players of varying ages. Most of them do not participate in official SCRABBLE tournaments; however, they are all aware who the top players are and often talk down about them. Matt frequents the park SCRABBLE games but Joel and Marlon decline to go there. Joe went to the park after his last Championship win and got beat by restaurant owner Aldo Cardia. The players at the park said Joe was arrogant and made up a bunch of excuses why he lost. Just before the upcoming tournament, Joe returns to the park for a rematch, best of 7, against Aldo. Joe wins 4 out of 7 games giving him back the bragging rights; although, no one within the park players seem impressed.

The documentary follows the guys around a few tournaments leading up to the championship and since each are well known throughout the SCRABBLE world, the filmmakers get some interviews with other players and tournament officials asking their opinions about the four competitors. Most consider them with respect and acknowledge the quirkiness of the four. At the championship tournament, there is a junior level and the filmmakers interview an 11 year old, who has been playing for “a couple of years”. When asked about his future, he says he doesn’t want to become one of those obsessive SCRABBLE players without a job…

It’s Championship time in San Diego, California! Over the course of five days, the four men play game after game racking up points to win each game but also cumulative points to determine ranking for the top prize of $25,000. It’s intensely stressful for each of the four men winning some and losing some. They often go back and look at the game board to find the mistakes or words they missed in order to either get better for the next round or beat themselves up mentally. There’s a lot at stake here.

**NO SPOILERS** The championship tournament concludes with a new winner and some interesting turn of events for the four players. You’ll have to watch to find out who takes the grand prize 🙂

What I Liked

The style is super cool. It has groovy bumper music and tron like word scrambles as it transitions from person to person or place to place. The editing supports each character and the journey creating intrigue and engagement in wanting to know what is going to happen, what are these guys going to do next, who’s going to win?

I’m completely fascinated by this world of words and the intense dedication to playing SCRABBLE. I liked that Matt, Marlon, and Joel let the filmmakers see them and their home environments as they are: cluttered, small, books everywhere, and counter tops covered in medicine or supplements. Joe, it seemed, limited the filmmakers on seeing how he lived at home and instead showed him studying his words on small flash cards while he drove to work. Just a bit more mystery to Joe’s inner workings…

I liked the park and hearing from those SCRABBLE players. Their theories about male and female players as well as the air of snobbery surrounding the park players versus the tournament players. I suppose when you get to that level of any game or sport, there’s going to be the attitude to go with it.

I liked seeing the players families and them playing SCRABBLE together or supporting these guys while they do nothing but play or study SCRABBLE. None of them complain or wish the players had jobs, it’s just a way of life they’ve accepted. I found myself rooting for Matt, Joel, and Marlon as they have nothing else going for them but the game.

Plus, all the different combinations of words and how each of the players “see” words was fascinating and mind-blowing. I was in awe just thinking of the immense knowledge of words the SCRABBLE players have.

What I Wished Was Better

I have no idea. Maybe a follow up sequence like, “6 months later….” A where are they now?

Final Thoughts

Word Wars is a mind-blowing documentary about the obsessive and competitive world of SCRABBLE. Like the tagline says,” This is NOT your Grandmother’s game of SCRABBLE.” Available on Amazon and Tubi. Watch the trailer below:

Fun Facts: The next championship is being held August 1 – 5, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland with registration opened now! Click the link for more information: https://www2.scrabbleplayers.org/w/Welcome_to_NASPAWiki I checked to see if there were any clubs in Oregon. There is a recreational club–meaning serious play but not for competition–in Newport! Only an hour from home.

There are other SCRABBLE documentaries like Word Slingers and Lost For Words. Players from around the world gather in the United States to compete in the tournaments. Canadians seem to have to most SCRABBLE winners than any other country.

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